Photo: Dan Walker

Redwood Forests: Can Reforestation Efforts Save the World from Global Warming?

The redwood forests have long represented Continental America, dominating the northwest coastal region with some of the world’s tallest trees resiliently living up to 2,000 years. However, America’s famous forests are not as grand as they once were. According to data from the U.S. National Park Service, “96 percent of the original old-growth coast redwoods have been forested.”

As Euro-Americans expanded westward in the 1800s due to the gold rush, the durability and availability of Redwoods proved ideal for settlers establishing a new population. Sawmills flourished, and Redwoods were excessively felled. Land fraud, in which public domain redwood forests were transferred to private industry, led to the severe decrease in the redwood population. The Timber and Stone Act of 1878 permitted the sale of up to 160 acres of federal land for $2.50 per acre. The law was initially created to designate land to settlers. However, fraudulence spread as land purchased by settlers was quickly sold to lumbering industries, and hundreds of acres meant for individuals was transferred to corporate ownership. U.S. Senator John H. Mitchell, along with Representative Binger Hermann were accused of assisting and accepting money from “land grabbers” that used aliases to purchase more than the 160 acres, assuming multiple homestead allotments.

As homesteads were established, and corporations obtained hundreds of acres for logging, the unbounded redwood forests waned. By the early 1900s, most of the forests were gone. A mere 4 percent of the original forests survive today. Yet these enormous trees are some of the longest-living, most efficient trees in the world, sequestering up to 400 tons of carbon dioxide at maturity and in the process of storing CO2 release oxygen into the atmosphere.

David Milarch, co-founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive is determined to save the redwoods, and in the process, reduce the effects of greenhouse gases, ultimately with the hope of halting global warming. Archangel’s mission is to “propagate the world’s most important old growth trees before they are gone. Reforest the Earth with the offspring of these trees to benefit all life through the natural filtering process of the trees to increase oxygen, sequester carbon dioxide, and provide beneficial aerosols and medicines. Archive the genetics of ancient trees in living libraries around the world for the future.” The Milarch father-son team of Michigan nurserymen and a plant propagator from California are harvesting old-growth DNA, propagating the seedlings in hormone-enriched soil, and planting them up the Northwest coast of Continental America to assist in migration and to slow the effects of global warming.

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Old Genetics, New Ideas

One of the biggest questions concerning Archangel’s mission to propagate and reforest is “why use old-growth trees?”. Naturally, cloning younger DNA is significantly easier than ancient DNA. However, Archangel is convinced that old-growth trees possess something unique that will help them in reforestation efforts. Milarch posits that while there is really no current evidence to support using old-growth trees for propagation, these trees have mysteriously survived longer than average Redwoods. “Most Redwoods don’t grow more than 1,000 years,” says Milarch, “but the small fraction of old-growth trees have lived between 2,000 and 3,000 years.” While the reason for this hasn’t yet been discovered, the newly planted old-growth clones are expected to make a difference.

A study at University Pennsylvania established that the average street tree lives between 7 to 30 years, while suburban residential trees survive anywhere from 30 to 150 years. Because Redwoods live significantly longer than the average street or residential trees at up to 2,000 years, they have the potential to sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which could radically slow or stop global warming. After 2 or 3 years, Milarch expects the trees to grow about 10 feet annually, so even at their smallest size, they will be making a difference. While the size of Redwoods is what appears to make them desirable, it is their ability to grow quickly which makes them an ideal tree for CO2 reduction, as young, fast-growing trees generally sequester carbon dioxide most rapidly. Once the Redwoods reach maturity, Milarch explains that each tree stores 400 tons of carbon, which is “a hell of a lot better than the street trees we’re planting in our path of urbanization.”

Trees on the Move

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On December 14, Archangel Ancient Tree Archive led the planting of a “champion redwood and sequoia forest” in Port Orford, Oregon using genetic clones of old-growth trees, such as the ancient Fieldbrook Redwood. Champion redwoods generally have a combination of significant height, diameter and crown spread, implying a zealous hardiness. The old-growth trees, or champion redwoods, which have survived approximately 2,000 to 3,000 years are suspected to be genetically superior. The forest planted with the presumed superior trees is not only an effort to archive ancient tree genetics, but also assists in the migration of redwoods which are threatened by climate change. Climate models predict that global ecosystems will shift poleward as global temperatures rise, suggesting that the habitat in which redwood trees thrive will migrate farther north each year. Accordingly, these climate models suggest that the redwoods need to migrate approximately 700 kilometers within 70 years in order to maintain a comfortable environmental zone, one which provides enough moisture and temperate climate to survive. However, Dr. Sally Aitken from University of British Columbia recently told The Globe and Mail that, without assistance, these trees, “can only shift their range at about 100 meters a year,” based on ice age studies. At the projected rate, the trees would never make it far enough north to survive rising global temperatures, thus requiring migration assistance.

As Milarch and his team members move the trees farther north, Archangel’s sights are set beyond North America. Milarch says that for global redwood reforestation, they’ve established, “eight countries they will do well in,” which includes France, Ireland, Chile, Wales and the province of British Colombia. Despite having a narrow climate niche, redwoods have been planted outside of the United States with success in Australia and New Zealand and parts of Europe. Sierra Redwoods have thrived in the Black Forest in Germany, as well as the British Isle, as they benefit from an environment with high rainfall and humidity. Costal Redwoods have been grown in South America and throughout Europe. Both types of Redwoods are planted in an ornamental capacity. However, the Costal Redwoods that have been used for reforestation efforts in global locations have yielded few successes.

Milarch, however, insists that some of the planned countries offer even better environments for the Redwoods than their native coastal America habitat, noting that, “Ireland is especially good for them.”

A Risky Move?

Some scientists have expressed concerns that even moving the Redwoods farther north in the U.S. could be detrimental to their growth. Black bears in the area rip the bark from redwoods, feeding on the soft cambial layer. Furthermore, reports question if Port Orford, Oregon is too cold for the Redwoods, which require warm, humid environments with temperatures between 15° and 100° Fahrenheit. While some claim that cooler Oregon will inhibit Redwood growth, the average low annual temperature in Port Orford is 45.5° Fahrenheit. Archangel is optimistic that the trees will thrive in their new environment, as California’s temperature has rapidly increased and a sharp decline in rainfall threatens the trees, which require fog and humidity.

However, Milarch argues, “we’ve got larger fish to fry than a few bears roaming around,” and that Port Orford’s cool, damp environment “fit the trees to a T.”

While Archangel hopes to reach their eight-country reforestation goal within two to three years, concerns are raised that the introduction of American Redwoods could devastate non-native ecosystems. The introduction of the Norway Maple, which is an invasive species, into North America exemplifies the dangers of non-native species used in ornamental capacities. The Norway Maple prevents native North American trees from growing, or displaces native greenery by establishing a monotypic population. Once an area has been dominantly populated by the Norway Maple, a large canopy creates a heavy shade, making it difficult for other plants to survive. However, Milarch disagrees and argues that Redwoods are “non-invasive trees. They don’t travel.” Yet, while Redwoods do not travel as invasive species, their height and root systems grant them an advantage in competition for sunlight and soil.

To Protect and Sustain

As Archangel is a not-for-profit organization, their recently planted forest in Port Orford, Oregon will be protected from commercial activities. Milarch confirms the new forest in Port Orford “will never be cut down.” However, David Milarch expressed that they are also looking to encourage sustainable development efforts.

When it comes to sustainable development forests, “we would like some,” says Milarch. The establishment of sustainable forests entails that trees are planted very densely. As trees grow, they require more room for root systems and branch spread. To accommodate these needs, excess trees are harvested. Sustainable development forests are primarily commercial enterprises that have an emphasis of ethical care of forests. Whether the trees are planted in protected forests, or used for sustainable development, the old-growth Redwoods show a lot of promise.

A Model to Follow

David Milarch is hopeful that the forest in Port Orford, Oregon will act as a model in reforestation efforts to combat global warming. However, while this initiative seeks to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, rising CO2 emissions continue to perpetuate the original problem. The United States continues to be one of the leading greenhouse gas emitters, and fossil fuel combustion constitutes 90 percent of greenhouse gases. The organization Carbon Monitoring for Action has documented that the Scherer Plant of Southern Co. emits an estimated 23,861,000 tons of CO2 annually, making it the highest producer of greenhouse gases for all United States power plants. This problem is worsened by the limited legislation in place holding energy corporations accountable for their pollution. While during his first term President Obama introduced regulatory legislation using his authority under the Clean Air Act, some critics, including the Sierra Club’s Jenna Garland, claim that it does not go far enough, lamenting the fact that it requires only that power plants exceeding 75,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year must submit to regulation.

While there has been skepticism that the mere planting of trees can save the Earth from dramatic climate changes, Archangel is certain that they have found the solution. Milarch urges that reforestation must be adopted globally, and that long-living Redwoods need to be planted everywhere: in cities, neighborhoods and parks, not just secluded locations. What is certain however, is that with the current rate of pollution, every little effort counts.

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